The diplomatic row that has erupted between Washington and Copenhagen over Greenland is just one part of a broader strategic battle being waged over control of the Arctic, according to one expert.

US President Donald Trump has canceled a trip to Denmark and launched a war of words with his Danish counterpart, Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen, after she rejected his idea of the US buying Greenland as “absurd.”

Mikaa Mered, professor of polar geopolitics at Paris’s ILERI institute of international relations said Trump’s unsolicited advances on the autonomous territory were a way to indicate US interest in the resource-rich Arctic – and to distract from domestic issues.

Control of shipping routes

Mered said Trump’s offer to buy Greenland was a signal to Arctic nations and China, which has shown interest in a region that is crucial for the control of new shipping routes opening up as ice sheets melt because of global warming.

“When it comes to the Russians, [Trump’s] logic is to say: ‘You won’t always be the main power in the Arctic even if you are the chair of the Arctic Council in 2021.'”

“And when it comes to the Chinese, the idea is … ‘We won’t let you get a foothold in Greenland,'” Mered said.

He said the US has already increased its presence by re-establishing a consulate in Greenland’s capital, Nuuk, and helping to finance new airports, education and social programs.

“The end goal is not to acquire Greenland per se but at least some new territory, some new pieces of land,” he said.

Washington could be angling to buy the Gronnedal naval base in southern Greenland, “which the Danes ultimately decided not to sell in late 2017 because the only interested buyers were Chinese,” he added.

Europe’s role

“It’s possible that this whole hullabaloo is a political, media and economic test balloon designed to see how strongly Europeans feel about Greenland,” Mered said, predicting the row could drag on.

“He will continue to use the case of Greenland, especially since Denmark is a fairly servile ally that won’t turn its back on the US because of this.”

Mered said the issue allows Trump to “make strides in the Arctic and at home.”

“Looking at the presidential election, he has everything to gain by carrying on: he gets the Democrats out of the news at a critical time with the start of campaigning for the primaries and he himself is kicking off a bunch of rallies.

In the US, “nobody knows where Greenland is, how it’s run…. There are so many things going on, he can continue to drag this out for several weeks.”

Residents sit on a wooden dock on August 16, 2019 in Kulusuk (Qulusuk), off the southeast shore of Greenland. Photo: AFP/ Jonathan Nackstrand

Trump’s take

Trump snapped back on Wednesday at the Danish prime minister’s “nasty” dismissal of his attempts to purchase Greenland, heightening a row which had already prompted the US president to scrap a state visit.

Trump, who made his name as a New York property mogul, characterized his idea of buying Greenland as essentially “a large real estate” deal, arguing it is a burden on Denmark as the autonomous territory’s economy depends heavily on subsidies from Copenhagen.

Speaking to reporters at the White House, Trump said he was not the first US president to have raised the idea of buying the vast Arctic island, which has housed an American airbase since even before it became formally a part of Denmark.

“Greenland was just an idea, just a thought. But I think when they say it was ‘absurd’ – and it was said in a very nasty, very sarcastic way – I said, ‘We’ll make it some other time,'” Trump said.

“We’ll go to Denmark. I love Denmark. I’ve been to Denmark. And, frankly, we’ll do it another time.”

The idea of the US buying Greenland was initially dismissed as a joke by some, but its strategic location has grown at a time when both Russia and China are flexing their muscles.

Another picture taken on August 16 shows Apusiaai glacier near the Kulusuk island off southeastern Greenland. Photo: AFP / Jonathan Nackstsrand

Danish colony

Greenland was a Danish colony until 1953, when it became part of the Danish Realm, and it gained “autonomous territory” status in 1979. Its 55,000 inhabitants – of whom 17,000 reside in the capital Nuuk – are more than 90% Inuit, an indigenous group from Central Asia.

The government of Greenland has insisted that the island is “not for sale” and Frederiksen told reporters on Wednesday that she fully endorsed that view.

“I am both annoyed and surprised that the US president has canceled a state visit,” said the prime minister, who had been preparing to host Trump early next month.

But, she added: “Denmark and the US are not in crisis, the US is one of our closest allies” and the invitation to visit was still open.

Her Foreign Minister Jeppe Kofod reaffirmed the strong relationship between the two nations, reporting that he’d had a “frank, friendly and constructive talk” with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

“US & Denmark are close friends and allies with long history of active engagement across globe. Agreed to stay in touch on full range of issues of mutual interest,” Kofod tweeted.

The State Department said that in this conversation Pompeo expressed appreciation for Denmark’s contribution as a US ally. He and his Danish counterpart also talked about “strengthening cooperation with the Kingdom of Denmark – including Greenland – in the Arctic,” the department said.

‘Show more respect’

The postponement of Trump’s visit – which was announced on Twitter – has sparked strong reactions in Denmark.

“Reality transcends imagination… this man is unpredictable,” said Morten Ostergaard of the Social Liberal Party, which is part of the ruling coalition.

“For no reason, Trump assumes that (an autonomous) part of our country is for sale. Then insultingly cancels visit that everybody was preparing for,” tweeted Rasmus Jarlov, a member of the opposition Conservative Party. “Are parts of the US for sale? Alaska? Please show more respect.”

Nonetheless, the conservative newspaper Jyllands-Posten wrote that Trump’s actions ultimately benefitted Denmark, highlighting Greenland’s geopolitical value.

The territory is home to the US airbase Thule, crucial during the Cold War as a first line of monitoring against a potential Russian attack.

But the melting polar ice sheet is opening up potentially major shipping routes, and untapped reserves of oil, gas and minerals will become increasingly accessible, leading Russia and China to show mounting interest in the region.

As far back as 1867, the US State Department expressed interest in the island. And in 1946, President Harry S. Truman offered $100 million in gold, or parts of Alaska, in exchange for Greenland.